Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended Susan Bucher as Palm Beach County's supervisor of elections, abruptly ending the tenure of the elections chief under criticism for her handling of last year’s midterm election recounts.
During a press conference outside the old county courthouse in West Palm Beach, DeSantis said he was replacing Bucher with Wendy Link, a Republican real estate lawyer and member of the state university system board of governors. He cited in his decision what he called the election office’s ineptitude and Bucher’s failures to meet ballot counting deadlines during the midterms.
"Throughout the voting process and the days after Nov. 6, 2018, the elections office in Palm Beach demonstrated on a national stage that they simply could not comply with the laws of the state and Supervisor Bucher could not discharge the duties she was supposed to discharge," DeSantis, a Republican, said.
Bucher, a Democrat who has the position for 10 years, did not respond to requests for comment after DeSantis' announcement.
The Florida Senate, which reviews executive suspensions, will now decide whether to make her removal permanent.
Palm Beach County Constitutional Tax Collector Anne Gannon said she recently spoke to Bucher about the suspension. Bucher told her she plans to challenge the move, said Gannon, who called DeSantis’ decision misguided and politically-motivated.
Bucher became the second South Florida elections supervisor to be suspended over the election recount. DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, in November replaced Broward County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes with lawyer Peter Antonacci. Before her suspension, Snipes planned to resign by early January, but has since challenged Scott’s move in federal court in Tallahassee.
However, DeSantis on Friday said he will accept her resignation and supersede Scott's suspension order to end the court battle and save taxpayers money. He also named Chris Anderson, a U.S. military veteran who served in Afghanistan, to replace new Secretary of State Mike Ertel as Seminole County's elections supervisor.
Bucher's suspension comes after she confronted intense Republican scrutiny in November as her office struggled to meet deadlines to finish recounts for three statewide races. DeSantis noted that Palm Beach County did not finish recounting ballots until 50 days after Election Day, long after other Florida counties completed the process.
Bucher blamed the delay on tabulation machine breakdowns. Her equipment also could only count one race at a time. Palm Beach was the only county in the state using outdated machines bought in 2007. Before the election, the county had set aside $11 million to buy new machines, but Bucher decided not go through with the purchases because she feared the equipment would not comply with the state's 2020 rules.
Other issues were not due to technical problems. Ertel, who was at Friday's news conference, said Bucher placed a polling location inside a gated community, in violation of state law. A judge also rebuked her during the recount for delays in providing copies of duplicated ballots to the Scott campaign. Scott defeated incumbent Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate race.
The recount drama attracted national attention as Scott and other Republicans accused the elections office of "trying to steal the election" in favor of Democrats. They noted that Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, complied with all elections deadlines. Broward, which also missed deadlines, was the target of similar criticism.
"You had the whole country laughing at us," said DeSantis, who issued an executive order that lists various reasons for Bucher's suspension. "It really tarnished the image of Florida. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again."
As DeSantis spoke on Friday, Palm Beach County Democrats held signs and booed nearby. They said Bucher probably should have purchased new voting equipment before the midterms, but added she’s been the county’s best ever elections supervisor.
Gannon said DeSantis' move was a power grab and accused him of deliberately seeking to oust elected Democrats.
“If he can do that to Susan Bucher...he can do it to anybody that he determines, under whatever standards, that they need to be removed from office," she said. "We have a huge Democratic base in West Palm Beach. Is he going to remove the Democratic mayor because they do some minor thing?”
Bucher, 60, a native of Escondido, Calif. first served as a state legislator for eight years before being elected as elections supervisor in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 and 2016. She was expected to run again in 2020, and had already drawn one challenger.
Bucher’s removal is not yet permanent. The Florida Senate could decide to reinstate her.
Link, the replacement, is a Republican from Boynton Beach and founding member of the law firm Akerman, Link & Sartory. She said on Friday that she does not plan to run for election in 2020.
“I’m going to ensure that Palm Beach County is well-prepared for every election,” she said, after being introduced during the press conference with DeSantis. "I'm going to ensure that everyone in our county has the assurance and sense of security that their vote will count."
But Mark Schneider, president of the Palm Beach County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he fears voter registration outreach by the office will slow under Link. He noted that Bucher is routinely educating people about voting and persuading them to register.
“I have no confidence that will continue in the future," he said.
DeSantis' move is the latest in a string of removals of elected officials since taking office 11 days ago. He has already dismissed Scott Israel as Broward County Sheriff and suspended the Okaloosa County schools superintendent, Mary Beth Jackson.